"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Mixed-race children in colonial Indochina
In colonial Indochina (fig. 3), various actors (public figures, soldiers, philanthropic associations, religious congregations) took an interest in the “Eurasian question” (1). While some mixed-race children were the lifeblood of their societies, constituting bridges between two communities, others had difficulty finding their place, and faced rejection from both sides. Within the colonial system, what role was to be given to the thousands of Eurasian boys and girls born each year to mothers who had been in relationships that combined two layers of domination—the domination of colonizers over the colonized, and that of men over women (fig. 4)? How should children whose French fathers most often had little or no interest in them be cared for? What was the French state’s goal in taking responsibility for them? During the First Indochina War (1946-1954) between France and the Communist Viet-Minh separatists, the presence of a large French expeditionary force—comprised solely of career soldiers—led to a significant increase in the number of mixed-race children born. Within the highly natalist context of the post-war period, one response from the French authorities was to apply a decree dated November 8, 1928, which was focused on “determining the status of mixed-race children born in Indochina to parents legally unknown.” In particular, this decree stated: “Article 1. Any individual born in the territory of Indochina to parents, one of whom, legally unknown, is presumed to be of French race, may obtain, in accordance with the provisions of this decree, recognition of French nationality.” This opened the door to “Frenchifying” mixed-race children, to “recovering” them and assimilating them into metropolitan French society (2).
The French words “Eurasien(s)” (in the masculine) and “Eurasienne(s)” (in the feminine) have been used, sometimes proudly, by those whose stories are told here. For them, the term “Eurasian” is a strong marker of identity and we therefore use it to refer to them.
However, the French army in Indochina was made up of Europeans (for example, the German legionary in fig. 5), North Africans, sub-Saharan Africans, West Indians (for example, the Martinican in fig. 6), South Asians (who came from French trading posts in India), and others. Therefore, some mixed-race children cannot be considered Eurasian strictly speaking. The colonial administration at the time used the terms Indo-Vietnamese and Africasian, which are no longer used by those to whom they would have referred (1), who consider the term “Eurasian” to be all-encompassing, and feel that their identities were transmitted to them by their mothers first and foremost (2). There was also a wide range of other, more complex combinations, for example, a Eurasian man and a Vietnamese woman, or two Eurasians (whose children were referred to as “quadroons” [quarterons]), and so on (3). René L. and Marie C., both Eurasian, were married in 1947, as can be seen from their marriage certificate (fig. 7). They had 9 children, born between 1948 and 1962. The family lived very well; he was a teacher, and she took care of the children until her untimely death in 1962.
The familial configurations of Eurasians
Eurasian children’s families were very different depending on the marital status of the parents, the place and role of their father, and the situation of the maternal family. Most often, the fathers were largely absent from their children’s lives, sometimes leaving before anyone was aware of the pregnancy; or, they may have known about it but chose to close the Indochinese chapter of their lives. Some later married in France.
Marie-Simone (born 1939) and Ginette (born 1941) grew up in Hanoi with their mother (fig. 8), and did not know their father, a soldier from Brittany. In 1944, Simone was sent to live with the nuns at Langson, and later her sister joined her, in Hanoi. Fathers’ absences often led mothers to form households with other French soldiers, since they were no longer accepted by Vietnamese society. Germaine (born 1943) never knew her father, who died in combat, and her mother also died; Germaine recounts that “she was poisoned, as was the little boy she was nursing, probably because she frequented French men.” Under family and social pressure, mixed-race children were abandoned by their mothers at birth and entrusted to charity organizations.
In the L. family mentioned above, the mother’s early death in 1962 obliged the father to return to France with his children, “except for one sister, who stayed to be near my mother’s grave and to take care of my grandmother,” recounts Josette, the youngest of the siblings, born in 1962. In the photographic composition by Josette (fig. 9), her sister Alice (born in 1953) can be seen between her two parents and wears a mourning ribbon for her mother who had just died.